Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

There are 3.7 million Google hits for "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," a book that is just a few weeks old. There are less than half as many for "Catcher in Rye" (1.5 million)—also know as "Battle Hymn of the Alienated Adolescent"—and just 1.6 million for "David Copperfield," the book and the magician.

 

I could go on, but the point is made. Unless you've been locked in a room practicing "The Little White Donkey"—a piano piece that plays a central role in Amy Chua's anthem to police-state childhood—you've likely heard at least something about this remarkable pop-culture bubble.

 

Chua has burst on the scene with a shameless and tendentious memoir of parental micromanagement. She brought up her two daughters according to plan, and that plan is a relentless, joyless, kick-ass school of Chinese discipline, an approach which she consistently, and simplistically, contrasts to the marshmallow, child-centric Western model.

 

The examples of Chua's tiger toughness have become instant legends, giant bullet points in our cultural PowerPoint. No TV, no playdates, no sleepovers. Refusal to accept handmade birthday cards because the kids didn't labor long enough on them. A threat to incinerate one of her children's stuffed animals unless she mastered a piano piece. She called her daughters "garbage" when angry.

 

"Happiness is not a concept I tend to dwell on," she writes with no overstatement whatsoever. The book makes Chua's household sound like a highbrow version of one of those boot camps for troubled teens. If Chuck Schumer had heard about what was going on in there, he would have shown up with a camera crew.

 

Its willful and impenitent outrageousness is why Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has captured the public's imagination, spurring endless and largely unenlightening debate about child-rearing philosophy. And that's exactly what Chua intended. In fact, what she's produced is not a book at all, it's a manufactured artifact strategically designed to ignite a raging media forest fire. This bestseller is as close to literature as McDonald's hamburgers—created by clever food scientists who artificially manipulate laboratory-bred flavors and aromas to trigger a biological response—are to food.

 

According to industry reports, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother sold in the high six figures after a spirited auction. The instincts of the bidders were accurate; the book knows its audience, playing upon our obsessions and anxieties as confidently as David Mamet's con men toy with their targets. The fear of the Chinese eating our global lunch; our anxieties about the economic future; our worry about the psychic motivation of our children—they're all here. As is a polarizing, fascinating, and infuriating narrator.

 

Naturally, everyone tows a U-haul of biases to the debate, which began shortly after the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from the book. And not just biases, but subterranean blues. Even the most goo-goo parents, those who find Chua's gulag ideology offensive, will concede that they worry about the long-term effects of our affluent, compliant culture of easy laughs and jiggly values on their kids. Chua is showing us a mirror; we don't like the person who's holding it up, or what we see.

 

Beyond the level of personal parental response, the interpretative frenzy largely cleaves along well-established lines in the culture wars. If you believe that American society has gone soft, that we've lost the hard virtues, that we coddle our kids and lavish them with over-praise for under-performance, this book reinforces every cocktail party argument you've ever made. Likewise, if you believe that children need to be encouraged to find their way, that parenting needs to be deferential to a child's psychological vulnerabilities, that building confidence is a primary task, then have your beta-blockers standing by. (And if you're David Brooks, and you have a book called The Social Animal coming out in March, you write about the book through that ready lens. He calls Chua a "wimp" for essentially isolating her children and protecting them from the demands that derive from mastering the art of group dynamics and collective engagement, particularly in the toughest jungle of all, the high school cafeteria.)

 

Yet despite all the coverage the book has received, commentary about some important aspects of it has been light-to-marginal. For example, I find the book to be inherently racist; it's shocking that Chua is so lacking in self-reflection and fundamental cultural sensitivities that she just forges ahead waving a giant paintbrush. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a Thanksgiving Day Parade of cartoonishly inflated ethnic stereotypes.

 

Chua's portrayal of the Chinese as cold, brainy, and vicious feeds into every cliché going back to the Yellow Peril, Charlie Chan, and The Manchurian Candidate. By contrast, the West is soft and self-indulgent, in a spiral of decline. And her caricature of the Jews—represented by her long-suffering husband Jed, and his standard-issue liberal parents—has all the anthropological subtlety of a Jackie Mason routine. If a politician showed up on YouTube mouthing such crass stereotyping, he'd be shamed into early retirement.

 

Besides, there was no reason to make this an East vs. West polemic, especially since the author's "evidence" never extends beyond her own personal experience. Does she think it's good parenting to encourage your children to make sweeping judgments like this based on such a limited sample?

When I look around at all the Western families that fall apart—all the grown sons and daughters who can't stand to be around their parents or don't even talk to them—I have a hard time believing that Western parenting does a better job with happiness.

Beyond its clumsy and invidious comparisons, which are unbecoming to a Yale Law School professor one would hope is capable of more nuanced thinking, the book is intellectually dishonest. "There is no rest for the Chinese mother…" Chua kvetches, "… no time to recharge, no possibility of flying off with friends for a few days to mud springs in California." Here, she manages to both play the martyr and skewer her hedonistic Western friends, as if her decisions were forced upon her.

 

When her daughters pipe up with a squeak of rebellion, and complain that she's really pushing them for the vicarious rewards, Chua pretends to have a moment of introspection and questions her own motives: "My answer, I'm pretty sure, is that everything I do is unequivocally 100% for my daughters. My main evidence is that so much of what I do with Sophia and Lulu is miserable, exhausting, and not remotely fun for me." The woman is a lawyer and her "evidence" for a lack of self-interest in her maniacal pursuit of successful children is that the quest causes her pain? Freud to Amy: have you ever wondered if your lack of self-worth is what drives you to live a miserable and exhausting life, and to tear down your children in an attempt to make yourself feel better?

 

The biggest irony of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, though, is how sloppily written and unimaginative it is. I shudder to think of the punishment that would have been exacted on Sophia and Lulu if they played their instruments with the disdain for style, form, and detail that their mother's book displays. Chua venerates hard work, but the easy adjectives and lazy language she employs are symptoms of the lack of rigor that she accuses Western parents of tolerating, if not encouraging.

 

Of course, it can be easy and unfair to trot out examples of embarrassing prose and preposterous "insights" in a review, but in the context of a book written by a mom who pridefully forced her daughter to do 2,000 math problems when she came in second in her class, at least one deserves to be duly noted. Describing Whiggy and Tory, the family's pet rabbits, Chua writes: "They were unintelligent and not at all what they claimed to be." How did these unreliable hares make those claims? On their Facebook pages?

 

We have a lot of important issues about parenting and education to discuss today. The tension between creating self-esteem and encouraging self-awareness, for example. Or America's slippage in global measures of science mastery. Or how to make sure that affluence doesn't destroy motivation. These are complex subjects, but none of them are clarified or amplified by Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In Texas they say "All hat, no cattle." The literary analogue here is "All title, no book." Chua's marketing masterpiece has provoked a harsh kind of parental partisanship, electrifying both sides of the domestic aisle in a fashion that is ultimately as useless to any real progress as the partisanship in Washington.

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